Friday, May 28, 2021

Magnolia Park and the Wakehams of Orange County

Modern view of Magnolia Park, Garden Grove

Unassuming little Magnolia Park in Garden Grove was once the home of Ernest Alfred Wakeham (1887-1950), an early Orange County rancher of pioneer stock who contributed greatly to agriculture and education in the Garden Grove area.

His father, Hubert Henry Wakeham (1843-1888), was a native of Plympton St. Mary, England who came to Canada, then Illinois, and then finally to California around 1867. He came to the Orange County area (then still part of Los Angeles County) in 1870 and bought a 120-acre parcel of empty land in Gospel Swamp, south of Santa Ana. He turned the raw land into a productive ranch, which was ultimately passed down through several generations of Wakehams. Over time, he also purchased additional farmland in the region. He met and married Elizabeth Sarah Helmer (1855–1937) while visiting England in 1877 and brought her back to his ranch where they raised six children. 

Hubert and Elizabeth Wakeham

Hubert died in 1888. According to a biography in J. M. Guinn’s 1902 history of Orange County, “the responsibility of educating the children has fallen upon his faithful wife and helpmate, and the Mrs. Wakeham is due not only the credit of making noble men and women of her children, but also managing the affairs of her husband as to keep the estate intact and in splendid condition. She is well known in the neighborhood… and is a member of the Presbyterian Church.”

The oldest of the children, Hubert Laurence Wakeham, began running the ranch when he was old enough, and would go on to grow sugar beets, lima beans, and alfalfa, and to operate a dairy. The Wakeham family remained prominent in the Orange County dairy industry until the late 1930s. 

Home of H. H. Wakeham, Gospel Swamp, circa the 1870s.

The youngest of Hubert and Elizabeth’s sons, Ernest A. Wakeham, inherited forty acres of rich Gospel Swamp land when he came of age. He married Myrtle C. Cole (1886–1954) of Santa Ana in 1908 and the first of their children, Jack, was born in 1909. Likely in 1915 or after, Ernest and his family moved to Oceanside for a while, and by the late 1910s they were living at Roberts Island, near Stockton. 

In 1922, Myrtle’s real estate wheeler-dealer father, David G. Cole, purchased twenty acres of Valencia orange groves on the outskirts of Garden Grove and arranged for his son-in-law, Ernest, to manage the property. Moving back to Orange County from Stockton, Ernest also purchased an additional thirty acres of Valencia groves at the northeast corner of Magnolia St. and Orangewood Ave., where they also built a two-story home for themselves. The latter property, at 11402 Magnolia St., is now the site of Magnolia Park.

Ernest A. Wakeham

While running a citrus ranch, Ernest also assisted in tending the dairy business his father had started as well as becoming involved in the betterment of local agriculture, schools, and the community in general. Ernest served as the vice-chairman of the dairy department of the State Farm Bureau. 

At various times, he also served as the president of numerous organizations including the California Milk Producers Association, the Associated Farmers of Orange County, the Garden Grove Lions Club, the Garden Grove Farm Center, and the Garden Grove Citrus Association. He was a member of the Alamitos Elementary School District board from 1922 to 1946 and also served on the Garden Grove Union High School District board for twenty years. 

Myrtle Wakeham

Ernest and Myrtle’s children were Jack Cole Wakeham (1909-1985), Ned Alfred Wakeham (1911-1999),Ernestine Wakeham (1913-1999), Marjorie Wakeham (1915-1997), J. Donald “Don” Wakeham (1919-1945), Terry David Wakeham (1922–1982), and Dahl Bert Wakeham (1925–1971). While all of their stories haven’t yet been researched, those that have been are noteworthy.  

Jack Wakeham, followed in his father’s footsteps, serving for many years on the boards of the Alamitos Elementary School District and Garden Grove Union High School District. He was also the director of maintenance and operations for the nearby Savanna School District. He also served twice as president of the Native Sons of the Golden West. 

March 1943 comic strip featuring Don and Terry Wakeham failed to mention Don's fate

Don Wakeham served as a Navy pilot in World War II and was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism at the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942. Afterward, while on leave in Garden Grove, he talked his brother Terry into going to Navy Cadet Training rather than joining the Army. Don was then sent back to the Pacific theater, where he soon went M.I.A. and was presumed dead. 

His sister, Marjorie, was heartbroken, but became incredibly determined to do whenever she could for the war effort. She volunteered to become a Woman's Airforce Service Pilot (WASP), and completed her training in 1943. Throughout the war, she flew bombers, fighters, and other planes across the continent so that they could be shipped overseas to the theaters of war. After the war she returned home and worked for her father and as a bookkeeper for the Garden Grove Citrus Association. In 1951, during the Korean War, she was recalled to active duty in the Women's Air Force (WAF), and would spend a good deal of time in Japan. By 1952, she was commanding officer of the 4726th Women's Air Force Squadron out of Larson Air Force Base, in Washington State. She attained the rank of Major. 

Marjorie Wakeham, 1943. (Marjorie Wakeham Collection, National WASP WWII Museum)

Ernest Wakeham died in 1950. Myrtle followed in April 1954. Later that month, a new elementary school at Chapman Ave. near Beach Blvd. in Garden Grove – part of the Alamitos School District – was named Wakeham School in honor of Ernest A. Wakeham. (Go Wildcats!) Many of the Wakehams’ groves were sold for subdivision at about the same time.

In 1962, the City of Garden Grove paid the Wakeham estate $56,000 for 4.5 acres, including their home and surrounding citrus grove to create Magnolia Park. The city heavily remodeled the Wakeham home into a community center.  The family's pool was renovated to become a new public pool. 

Aerial view, Wakeham ranch, Garden Grove, July 7, 1955

In Sept 1963, the City Council authorized negotiations to purchase an additional 1.1 acres along Joyzelle St. to enlarge Magnolia Park to the north. And in September 1968 – after a heated debate – the Council approved the development of two lighted tennis courts (the first in the city) built atop a five-million-gallon water reservoir inside the park. This new addition also included landscaping and two handball courts and was dedicated in November 1972. 

Today, the Wakehams' name is remembered through Wakeham School and a street named West Wakeham Place in the old Gospel Swamp area of Costa Mesa and South Santa Ana. There is also an East Wakeham Ave. in the Pacific Park neighborhood in Santa Ana, although the source of that name is less certain. 

Modern aerial view of Magnolia Park, Garden Grove

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

An unsolved mystery in early Huntington Beach

San Pedro Harbor, circa 1890. (Courtesy

In May 1891, a mysterious man with a gunshot wound was found dead on the shore at Shell Beach -- now called Huntington Beach. It was the first time that sparsely inhabited corner of Orange County made the newspapers in any significant way, and the details of the story inspire head-scratching.

Visitors to today's Huntington Beach were so few in that era that it took days for anyone to notice the body lying in the surf. It was discovered late in the day on May 14th, and a message was sent to Orange County Sheriff Theo Lacy the following morning. Upon arrival, it was found that the dead man had a large bullet hole in his head. By later that same day, the body was in Anaheim, undergoing an autopsy by Coroner (and future Santa Ana mayor) Frank Ey.

According to the Los Angeles Herald, "The deceased, when examined, had no air in the lungs whatever, one of the surest signs that dissolution must have taken place before the body reached the water."

The following day, the Los Angeles Times reported the man was "about 55 years of age. He had gray hair and whiskers, the latter trimmed close to the face. His weight was about one hundred and seventy pounds. The body was dressed in a blue suit of clothes and checked shirt. The hole in the head was made by a large-sized bullet, probably a Winchester Rifle ball. There was $65 on the body when it was found. The money was securely sewed with a fine wire in the pocket of the pants and so secreted as to have almost been overlooked by the Coroner. There is no clew as to the circumstances of the death or identity of the deceased."

Orange County Coroner Frank Ey. (Courtesy First American Corp)

In fact, the body was that of David Crockett, a baker with a hazy past. 

Around May fourth Crockett had arrived in San Pedro from Los Angeles and checked in at Proche's Hotel & Restaurant. He said he was from Sacramento, but that his relatives lived in Springfield, Illinois. While in town, he idled about and unsuccessfully searched for someone willing write out his will for him. Finding no takers, he returned to Los Angeles. 

On May 9th, he returned to San Pedro, went into a bank, and drew out an amount of cash. That evening, he asked a hotel clerk if she would write his will for him. When she refused, he said she would soon discover why he'd made the request. Hours later, Crockett's hat and coat (with about $6 left in the pockets) were found abandoned on a pile of lumber on the San Pedro Lumber Company wharf.

San Pedro locals presumed he had killed himself. Once in the water, unusually strong tides that night would have pulled him past Smith's Island and out of the bay. The usual down-coast currents could easily have carried him to Shell Beach.

Less than a week later, Orange County, Sheriff Lacy and Santa Ana Constable Jack Landell were investigating their mystery victim, absolutely confident they had a case of homicide on their hands. They didn't make their suspicions public immediately, not wanting to tip off the killer. Soon, they were on the trail of a man who had been on Smith's Island (just inside the entrance to San Pedro Bay), but who had left by boat about the same time as Crockett's disappearance.

Orange County Sheriff Theophilus “Theo” Lacy

Meanwhile photographs of the dead man were distributed around Southern California. Soon, a positive identification was made. 

Now the San Pedro authorities had a body to go with their supposed suicide. Likewise, the Orange County authorities switched tracks completely, dropped their murder investigation, and adopted the suicide theory wholeheartedly.

But more than 120 years later, some of the facts still don't jibe. 

Perhaps the missing rifle and bullet ended up at the bottom of the bay. But how likely is it that Crockett shot himself in the head with a Winchester rifle? Not only would that be fairly awkward, but one would think the lengthy news articles concerning his suspected suicide would have made mention of him owning, buying, or carrying a hard-to-conceal rifle. 

And where did the gun and bullet go? Into the bay? 

More importantly, how could a man die from a gunshot on a wharf, have time for all the last traces of air to leave his lungs, and only then fall into bay -- All without leaving anything more than a hat and coat behind as evidence? At the very least, there should have been blood on the wharf.

Certainly, David Crockett was preparing for his own death. But was he planning suicide, or did he know someone was coming to kill him?

And most of all, what was the rest of Crockett's story?

Perhaps some intrepid historian will stumble across at least a few more of the answers someday.

Monday, May 03, 2021

Why is W. H. Spurgeon called “Uncle Billy?”

The ever-bewhiskered William H. Spurgeon

I was recently asked why local historians sometimes refer to Santa Ana’s founding father, William Henry Spurgeon (1829-1915), as “Uncle Billy.” 

“’Uncle Billy’ seems too familiar,” writes one of my favorite readers. “Contemporaries may have called him that (and he may have even encouraged it), but it just seems weird to be referring to him that way now.  At this point, there's not anyone alive who would have called him that.”

It's a fair point. But one might also point out that Spurgeon was (as a very public figure and politician) known by the public as Uncle Billy and was often referred to as such in the press. It’s a bit like folk artist Anna Mary Robertson Moses, who was widely known as “Grandma Moses” and who is still regularly referred to in that way almost sixty years after her death. Likewise, at least some contingent of locals have been calling William Spurgeon “Uncle Billy” since at least the early 1890s.

My aforementioned reader replies that it would at least be an improvement to refer to him as Uncle Billy Spurgeon -- not just Uncle Billy -- since he's not as nationally well known as Grandma Moses and thus requires additional identification. Again, a  fair point.

But let's take a step back and look at the man himself,...

W. H. Spurgeon was born in Kentucky, raised in Missouri, and first came to California in 1852 to seek his fortune in the Gold Rush. He returned to Missouri in 1859 but in 1865 returned overland to California with his wife Martha, his parents, and other relatives. When Martha died in 1867 he returned to Missouri again before finally coming back to California for good in 1869.

The third structure to bear the title of The Spurgeon Building

In 1868 and 1869, farmer Jacob Ross, Sr. bought a few thousand acres of the Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana from the heirs of the Yorba family. Upon his return to California, Spurgeon and a business associate, Major Ward Bradford, were looking for a place to establish a new town. An engineer who’d worked on partitioning the Yorbas’ rancho extolled the merits of that land to Spurgeon. So, in October 1869, Spurgeon and Bradford purchased seventy four acres from Ross for $594. The mustard on the land grew so high that Spurgeon had to climb a sycamore tree to see the property on which he’d just spent most of his life savings.

Bradford briefly owned the west half of the land before selling his interest and moving out of the area. Spurgeon owned the east half and made big plans. But it was initially a rough, pioneer life. In 1872, Spurgeon married Jennie English, who later recalled moving into the first house in town, at Sycamore St. and Second St, "which as yet had no roof, no doors and no windows."

Spurgeon mapped out a 24-block town site, which he named Santa Ana in honor of the old rancho. The original town boundaries were First St., Spurgeon St., Seventh St. and West St. (now Broadway). A street adjacent to the tree Spurgeon had climbed was appropriately named Sycamore. 

As the town grew, Spurgeon remained its chief booster and benefactor. He built the first road into town, he sold lots at low prices to encourage newcomers, and he asked various businesses to relocate to Santa Ana. He also started the town’s first store, the First National Bank of Santa Ana, the Santa Ana Gas & Electric Co., and the Santa Ana post office, where he served as Postmaster. 

Mrs. William Spurgeon, III and William Spurgeon IV plant a sycamore near the site of the original climbed by Uncle Billy. Historian Jim Sleeper (left) looks on. (Oct. 1976)

Spurgeon dug the town’s first artesian well and founded the town’s water company. He built roads from Anaheim to Santa Ana and on to Tustin, as well as the first road from Santa Ana to the coast. 

He built the Spurgeon Building at Fourth and Sycamore (the first of several with that name) and finagled to get his town included on the stagecoach line. He then served as the town’s Wells Fargo agent. He also sat on the boards of the Santa Ana Land Improvement Co., the Santa Ana Valley Walnut Growers’ Association, and the Santa Ana & Newport Railroad, and served for three years as president of the critically important Santa Ana Valley Irrigation Co. (SAVI). 

Perhaps most critically, in the late 1870s Spurgeon convinced the Southern Pacific Railroad to bring its Anaheim line down into Santa Ana, bypassing the rival communities of Orange and Tustin and ensuring Santa Ana’s continued growth and prosperity.

It also quickly became one of the area’s most important pollical movers and shakers. In 1877 and 1878 he served on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, representing the portion of the county that included Santa Ana.

When the City of Santa Ana incorporated in 1886, Spurgeon was the obvious choice as the town’s first mayor. The following year – despite being an ardent Democrat in the Republican-leaning 78th District – he was also elected to the State Assembly. Over the next few years, Spurgeon’s combined efforts with Republican James McFadden helped lead to the 1889 creation of the County of Orange. This new county had Santa Ana as its county seat and William H. Spurgeon as the chairman of its first Board of Supervisors. Later, Spurgeon sold land to the county (at a discount) for a courthouse, and Orange County’s government has been centered in that part of town ever since.

The Spurgeons with a giant rose bush, Santa Ana, 1913.

An early use of Spurgeon’s nickname, “Uncle Billy,” appeared in a June 25, 1892 Los Angeles Times article about a meeting of local Democrat party bigwigs. It mentions that “Uncle Billy Spurgeon was the unanimous choice . . . for grand marshal of the evening.” 

Two years later, the Los Angeles Herald (Aug 14, 1894) referred to “Uncle Billy” in an article about Santa Ana Democrats, and never even mentioned his full name, assuming readers would already know.

In fact, newspapers from the Anaheim Gazette to the Santa Ana Standard soon began frequently referring to him casually as Uncle Billy or Uncle Billy Spurgeon.

The reasoning behind the moniker isn’t spelled out in print until a 1907 biographical article in the Santa Ana Register, which cited many of the accomplishments of “Uncle Billy Spurgeon, as he is lovingly called by all who know him.”

Indeed, because of all his efforts – and perhaps also because of his personality – the citizens of the burgeoning City of Santa Ana came to feel a real affection and kinship for their energetic, resourceful, and benevolent patriarch. From those warm feelings, it seems, sprang the moniker “Uncle Billy.”

Those who have studied local history – from Carey McWilliams to Terry Stephenson to Phil Brigandi – have run across this nickname countless times in newspapers and pioneer accounts. Accordingly, their own works sometimes reference “Uncle Billy” as well.

I'll admit I've used the nickname myself -- a habit I picked up from Brigandi, who picked it up from from Jim Sleeper (and possibly Don Meadows), who, in turn, undoubtedly learned it from a wide array of old-timers. 

Is it one of those quirky local mannerism that helps tie us together as a community across the generations? Is it an ongoing tribute to an avuncular pioneer? Or is it just weird and inappropriate? 

You be the judge.